March 23, 2011
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SEATTLE -Lorenzo Romar hears the frustration of fans and others outside the Huskies' program. He gets it.
Actually, he got it from the best coach there ever was.
"When I got my first head-coaching job at Pepperdine (in 1996), the first call I got was from Coach (John) Wooden. He told me, `The only advice I can give you is, don't be too good too early, because they will expect it,'" Romar said, chuckling over how right UCLA's legendary coach has proven to be.
Romar knows sports, specifically basketball. He started both of the seasons he played it at UW, for legendary coach Marv Harshman. Romar then played five years in the NBA through the 1985 season. Then he became a coach, influenced by Wooden, Harshman, Rick Majerus and Jim Harrick, among others. He's coached at UCLA, Pepperdine and Saint Louis and now Washington.
So he knows the sports fan. That means he knows how this works: He establishes the Huskies, who had been to just three NCAA tournaments in 17 years before Romar arrived in 2002, as an annual tournament team. Yet after three Sweet 16 appearances and then a third-round loss Sunday to North Carolina, a game UW gave away at the end to abruptly finish this season, fans want more.
They want Final Fours and national titles. Yesterday.
"It never ends," Romar said of expectations. "And I totally understand how our success brings about higher expectations. I don't think maybe everyone understands that our expectations get high, too.
"We've been here nine years and we've been able to get to the NCAA tournament six times. It's been good, but we're still working to have a breakthrough. I just hope that people would be patient and see that we are still making progress."
Why be patient? Well, without patience, you may have never heard of Wooden as a coach, only as a Hall of Fame player. You may not have heard of Mike Krzyzewski or Dean Smith.
Here's some context with which to view Romar's tenure at Washington.
The truly elite college basketball programs in America -- Duke, Kansas, UCLA, Kentucky and North Carolina - all share one trait: Multiple national championships and excellence over not just years but decades. Yet those programs didn't reach that status in less than a decade under one coach, even a legendary one:
• As certifiably great as Wooden was, he had been coaching for 18 years, 16 at UCLA, before he won the first of his 10 national championships with the Bruins, in 1964.
• Krzyzewski was at Duke for 11 seasons before Coach K won his first national championship, in 1991.
• Adolph Rupp, the father of Kentucky basketball, coached the Wildcats for an astounding 42 years (1930-1972). Yet he didn't win his first national title until his 18th season at UK.
• Smith retired in 1997 from North Carolina after an NCAA-record 879 coaching wins. How long did he coach the Tar Heels before they won their first national championship under him? For 21 years, until Michael Jordan and James Worthy won Smith his first title in 1982.
• Heck, Phog Allen, "the father of basketball coaching," was at Kansas for 35 seasons before his Jayhawks won their first NCAA title, in 1952.
Romar just finished his ninth season at UW, at a school that has never won a national title and has been to just one Final Four. Ever. All of those iconic coaches above -- with the exception of perhaps Allen and Rupp, who basically started their programs - came onto teams far more established than Washington's was when Romar took over nine years ago.
What he's done - or not done yet - doesn't look so bad in that context, eh?
Romar has told me and others he wants no other job, that this is home for him and his family. He would love to retire as the Huskies' coach. And Washington is on its way to making that happen. UW gave him a 10-year extension last spring at $1.7 million per season.
It's not a gaudy salary in today's coaching industry - just the third-highest in the Pac-10 for basketball - and the contract calls for another review after next season. But as UW athletic director Scott Woodward told me Sunday following the loss in Charlotte, "Lorenzo's not greedy."
Not monetarily, anyway. On the court? That's another matter.
Romar understands the criticism that he hasn't won it all or been to a Final Four yet, despite the wealth of NBA-quality talent he's brought through UW.
"But what the criticism is basically saying is it doesn't matter that we've won two Pac-10 tournament titles, that we've won the school's first regular-season conference title in 50 years, that we've been to three Sweet 16s, that all that means nothing because we had higher aspirations," he said.
"Well, we had high aspirations, too."
For sure, this rocky season was a disappointment. Especially the ugly final 4 minutes Sunday in Charlotte, when a monumental win over the grand Tar Heels was the Huskies' to seize.
I was with the Dawgs for practices, meals, flights and 30 of their 35 games (except the three at the Maui Invitational in November, the home game against Texas Tech and one at Texas A&M in early December, all while I was with the football team during its run to the Holiday Bowl). I was with Huskies hoops from a players-only visit to Seattle Children's Hospital in September through the excruciating Sunday in Charlotte.
Though they didn't say it publicly, I can tell you the Huskies believed they had the talent and togetherness to roll through the Pac-10 and reach the Final Four.
They had a player-of-the-year candidate returning in Isaiah Thomas plus seniors Matthew Bryan-Amaning, Justin Holiday and Venoy Overton - all of whom with Thomas had already been to two NCAA tournaments and a Sweet 16. They had the deepest pool of outside shooters Romar had ever had at UW, including freshmen C.J. Wilcox and Terrence Ross. The finally had a potentially dominant 7-footer in the lane, junior-college transfer Aziz N'Diaye. And they had a slick, calming point guard to smoothly run them all in Abdul Gaddy.
Then Gaddy blew out his knee in January. Overton got hurt four times, then got into highly publicized, off-court troubles. Wilcox had a staph infection that made his shot rusty into February. Ross struggled defensively, curtailing his minutes and impact. UW's sometimes baffling inconsistency and a mysterious lack of defensive intensity, the bedrock upon which Romar has re-built Husky basketball, came to a head in three losses in six days on the road in February.
That lost week at Washington State, Oregon State and Oregon did far more than dampen some of UW's swagger. It ultimately cost the Huskies the Pac-10 regular-season championship. Even Washington's reviving sprint to the conference tournament title this month couldn't erase UW's third-place finish during the regular season in a league disrespected nationally all season.
Washington's body of work did not entitle it to being closer to home at a sub-regional in, say, Tucson, Ariz., in a much more palatable setting second-seeded San Diego State. Instead, the tournament selection committee sent the Huskies on a brutal, 2,800-mile trek to Charlotte and a second NCAA game with No.-2 seed North Carolina in its home state, where the Tar Heels are now 28-1 in NCAA tournaments.
So there's one lesson from this season that returning seniors Thomas, Darnell Gant and Scott Suggs will have all summer and fall, along with fellow returnees Wilcox, Ross, Gaddy, N'Diaye: Stay focused all season. What you do in December or February matters plenty come March.
Those who are critical of Romar don't see - or care to see - the full picture, how much he teaches, mentors and cares. How family and faith are so important. How strong and healthy and attractive the program is on a whole.
They didn't see him underneath Time Warner Cable Arena Sunday afternoon, minutes after the heartbreaking loss to the Tar Heels. Though Romar was sick inside, I watched him in a hallway on our way out to the team bus graciously thank everybody from UNC coach Roy Williams to tournament staffers, television cameramen, the locker-room security guard - even the staffer manning the door to the media dining room -- for making the Huskies' stay in Charlotte great.
The coach got home after 10 p.m. Sunday following the team's six-hour trip back across the country. Hours later, he shook off the disappointment and answered a call from a Seattle radio station to go on live at 7 a.m. to rehash it all.
Romar spoke for 56 more minutes Tuesday inside Alaska Airlines Arena. When it was ending, as media members - many of whom have ripped him for the way he's handled the team and Overton's situation this season -- were getting up to leave, the coach interrupted the exodus.
"Excuse me. Excuse me," he called out. "I just want to tell all of you, great working with you."
He then waved his hand across the room, to ensure he included all.
"Through all the ups and downs," he said, "great working with you."
That, just like criticism, goes both ways, Coach.
About Gregg Bell Gregg Bell is an award-winning sports writer who joined the University of Washington's staff in September 2010 as the Director of Writing. Previously, Bell served as the senior national sports writer in Seattle for The Associated Press. The native of Steubenville, Ohio, is a 1993 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He received a master's degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley in 2000.
Gregg Bell Unleashed can be found on GoHuskies.com each Wednesday.